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It was a disjointed and lacklustre performance from England, with the effects of a long Premier League season and the searing Budapest heat clearly taking their toll. The fact Southgate’s side still have three games to go in the next 10 days, starting with a trip to Germany, feels ominous.
England have to be, must be, better than this. They were outplayed by Hungary, who were worthy winners and claimed their first victory over the Three Lions since the 1962 World Cup.
Southgate can rightly feel aggrieved about the manner of Hungary’s goal, but not the result.
The host’s decider came midway through the second-half after Reece James, who had just come on as a substitute, was adjudged to have brought down Adam Nagy. It looked soft, but VAR didn’t intervene, and Dominik Szoboszlai made no mistake from the spot.
It turned out to be the only goal in a game that was played in bizarre circumstances. The Puskas Arena was over half full, despite this match officially being classed as behind closed doors after Hungary were punished for the “racist and discriminatory” behaviour of their fans at Euro 2020.
UEFA rules allow school children, accompanied by some adults, to attend games of this nature and there were 35,000 in attendance. It meant this was not the quiet and eerie atmosphere you’d expect, but an exceptionally loud one (thanks largely because the children had got their hands on horns and vuvuzelas).
The fact England players were booed by some sections for taking the knee before kick-off only added to the feeling this just wasn’t right and surely UEFA must look at how these behind-closed-door games are played.
“That’s why we do it to try to educate people around the world,” said Southgate. “I have no idea why people would choose to boo that gesture and very often young people can’t know why they’re doing it so they’re being influenced by older adults.
“Everyone knows what we believe and what we stand for.”
On the pitch, it was a night to forget for England as they failed to find any rhythm. They were bright early on, with Jarrod Bowen impressing on his debut, but after the opening 20 minutes or so Hungary were the better side.
Southgate now has plenty to ponder ahead of a trip to Germany. Does he stick with the 3-4-3 he used here, or does he revert to a 4-3-3?
Southgate has flicked between the two during his tenure and that is hardly a surprise given the wealth of talent available to him. Finding a way to knit the best combinations together remains an issue, though.
The 3-4-3 didn’t work against Hungary, with England lacking attacking intent. Their best weapon was a cross-field diagonal ball, allowing either wing-back to get in behind, but other than that they lacked ideas.
Mason Mount was quiet and so was Harry Kane, who remains four goals off Wayne Rooney’s goal record for England.
In midfield, Declan Rice looked like a player who is coming to the end of a gruelling season. Jude Bellingham, still only 18, showed flashes of brilliance and surely must be persevered with, even if he struggled here.
Ahead of them, however, there are questions to answer. Is there a way to get Jack Grealish, who was lively off the bench, Bukayo Saka and others into this side?
Germany provides Southgate with another chance to shuffle his pack, but time is running out ahead of the World Cup in Qatar later this year. England now have just five games to go before that and they will hope this defeat in Hungary was just a bump in the road, and they get back on track quickly.